It was a tense moment in the private room at the back of Vice President Xi Jinping's campaign bus.
The bus, nicknamed the Panda Express, sat idled outside his villa in the seaside resort town of Beidaihe. The candidate had just been told that his opponent, Vice Premier Li Keqiang, planned to mention Xi's daughter's enrollment at Harvard University and his first wife's penthouse condominium in London during the October Chairman Debates, ending the campaign's unofficial moratorium on personal attacks.
"This could be a game-changer," Wang Bashou, Xi's campaign manager, warned a gathering of the candidate's top strategists on Aug. 11, according to the accounts of three people in the room at the time. Xi, pulling on a French-made cigarette, rolled up his sleeves as his team of political operatives began to lay out a plan for attacking Li.
This previously undisclosed account of the meeting, featuring detailed interviews with dozens of campaign insiders, provides the most comprehensive portrait yet of how the race is shaping up after the first of three scheduled debates that could decisively shift the campaign narrative and decide who will be the next leader of the world's most populous country.
The most momentous event of the debate was planned beforehand. Guessing correctly that Li would tout that he had "more political experience than Zhou Enlai," Xi personally devised a devastating zinger in reply, according to two senior members of Xi's campaign who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to speak more candidly about their boss. "Vice premier, I served with Zhou Enlai. I knew Zhou Enlai. Zhou Enlai was a friend of mine. Vice premier, you're no Zhou Enlai," Xi said.
"Li had made the Zhou comparison before, and we wanted to be ready in case he made it again," said a consultant close to the campaign who called the debate a "make-or-break moment," citing Xi's lagging polling in the key swing provinces of Hubei and Liaoning. "We really won the Weibo news cycle with that one."
According to private polls taken after the debate and shared with Foreign Policy's Chinese edition, 58 percent of likely voters think Xi is more "chairman-like," and 63 percent think Xi is "more likely to get tough on Japan." Xi's rhetoric on the Diaoyu Islands dispute is performing particularly well with the "security aunties" that Xi's pollsters believe could decide this election. Seniors particularly appreciated Xi's promise to expand the social safety net and his vow "never, ever, ever" to "throw nainai under the minibus," campaign officials said.